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The Lively Pulse of Bandung

 

Bandung is always packed with people especially the youth who throng the city's food courts and shopping malls. Popular factory outlet in Bandung selling overruns branded items in cheap prices. Gedung Sate, the grandeur art deco building in Bandung built by the Dutch Colonialists in 1921.

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  • Image © 2003 Grace Emilia

John F. Kennedy of the United States, Akihito of Japan, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Yasser Arafat of Palestine and many other world history makers have visited the city of Bandung in West Java, Indonesia. Even Charlie Chaplin has visited Bandung.

In fact, most Asian and African leaders gathered in Bandung in April 1955 for an Asia-Africa Conference to establish the non-alignment movement, which united its members in their political independence from the world's super powers at the time, the USA and the USSR.

The historical city of Bandung was also regarded for its beauty and was nicknamed 'Paris van Java' by the Dutch colonialists in the 1920s whose urban planners made it the first "modern" city in the Dutch East Indies; following the colonial government's decision to move the colonial capital in stages from Batavia (the other name of old Jakarta) to Bandung, they built numerous, sophisticated, art-deco buildings, and made it the most "European" of all cities in Java.

One of the most well-known and beautiful buildings is the "Gedung Sate" which is currently used as the provincial government office, and also, because of its grandeur, a popular location for wedding photography. It was designed in 1921 by J. Gerber who combined the elements of western and eastern architecture, and for the first time in Indonesia's history, employed reinforced concrete technology in its construction. Afterwards, a large number of companies transferred their headquarters and factories to Bandung, making it one of South East Asia's most prosperous plantation cities and tourism destinations, attracting some 200,000 visitors in 1941.

Sadly though, Bandung today is not as beautiful as it was over six decades ago. The city has become one of the most crowded cities in Indonesia. Migrants from all over the archipelago have flocked to Bandung and made it their permanent home. The city administration cannot keep up with these newcomers and so the city has become quite chaotic with irregular housing arrangements and traffic jams. This traffic congestion is so horrendous that it rivals the notorious gridlock of Bangkok. Many of these migrants used to be visiting students since Bandung is a major student city in Indonesia. Many current cabinet ministers and intellectuals are graduates of Bandung's various universities, including Soekarno and Habibie, Indonesia's first and third presidents.

Over crowded as it is, Bandung still attracts numerous visitors who come mainly from Jakarta for weekend holidays. Before 1998's economical crisis, many of these Jakarta's middle-up residents headed for Singapore or Bangkok for their weekend sojourns. After the crisis, the getaway preference became Bandung, not only since it is located only a four-hour drive from the capital city, but also because it provides high quality shopping and dining choices.

It was the concept of "factory outlet shopping" which started gaining its popularity in the late 1990s that established Bandung as Indonesia's shopping mecca. Factory outlets were originally garment factories selling overruns and seconds of export materials at very low prices. It was a natural progression since there were virtually hundreds of textile and garment factories in Bandung. Indeed, seventy five percent of Indonesia's textile and garment exports originated in these factories.

As the concept of factory outlets proved to be a great success, however, many followed suit and deliberately opened factory outlets which now are dispersed almost everywhere around the city. Foreign currency price tags are often still attached on the items sold with the Rupiah price along side.

These outlets not only sell export overruns of materials "made in Indonesia", but also internationally branded items tagged "made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand or India". Popular labels include: Armani, Hugo Boss, Elle, Alfred Dunhill, Crocodile, Fendi, Nike, Reebok, Calvin Klein, Hush Puppy, Victoria's Secret, Banana Republic, Guess, Karen Scott, Sears, and Mervyn's brands.

The quality of the material is grouped into "Grade A" for best quality overruns and "Grade B" for seconds that did not pass the quality inspection by agents or buyers. Some items are also rejects, but inexperienced customers will hardly notice flaws and still happily make their purchases at low selling prices.

After cramping their legs by wandering for hours from one factory outlet to another, visitors usually head for haute cafes that provide a cozy atmosphere for lunch or dinner and good service at reasonable prices. The majority of these cafes are newly built and quite a few are owned by the textile people who diversified their businesses after 1998's crisis.

Since Bandung is situated on a high plateau surrounded by volcanoes, the most popular restaurants are located at an elevation providing beautiful views of the city. To be sure of getting a seat for dining in these cafes during the weekend, early reservations are highly recommended.

In addition to the city's attractiveness, Eric Oey, who wrote a guidebook on Java, has noted that the native Sundanese women in Bandung are, in the estimation of Indonesians, the most beautiful in the land. "Because of the climate, they have a lighter complexion than other Indonesians, and because the Sundanese diet features raw vegetables, they reputedly possess especially soft skin. Bandung ladies are fashion smart and forward looking - and the city's nickname, Kota Kembang (" the City of Flowers") has always been more of a sly reference to Bandung's distaff attractions than to its shrubbery."

But flowers, literally of course, can indeed grow very well in Bandung due to its cool climate and fertile soil. In the northern suburbs of Bandung, there is an area called "Cihideung" where all of its residents sell flowers, from cactus to roses to jasmine. Professional conference organizers often include this area as a favorite destination choice for the "Ladies' Program" in its pre or post conference tours.

Nearby Cihideung is a lush tea plantation open to the public for hiking and camping. It is located on the slope of Mount Tangkuban Perahu, a smoldering and surrealistic volcano 1800 meters above sea level. From this plantation, hikers can reach the volcano's top, which offers no magnificent view but only an old geological station's tower. However if we go down to the other side of the slope, we will be seeing the magnificent Kawah Ratu, the volcano's biggest and still active crater.

Those coming by car usually park around the rim of this crater. It takes about an hour's drive to reach this spot from Bandung. Meanwhile, those who want to experience a real "taste" of the volcano can just go down to the base of another smaller crater called Kawah Domas, which is also active, but less dangerous than its older brother. There are sulphuric springs with boiling water jetting out naturally from the ground. Visitors can boil eggs in these springs and so really taste the volcano's delicacy. There is no need to carry raw eggs since enterprising locals usually sell them along the forest track leading to the crater.

When tired of rambling the volcano, visitors can hop into Ciater, a nearby sulphuric spring pool, to immerse themselves in its hot water whose minerals contain analgesic, sedative and antiseptic properties. Many Bandung residents with rheumatic problems visit Ciater regularly for this aquatic thermal therapy.

To completely explore Bandung and its surroundings, a minimum of three days and two nights would be needed. International hotel chains like Sheraton and Hyatt are available, but there are also small inns catering to backpackers and youths. Deraya Air and Merpati Airlines make the half hour flight from Jakarta to Bandung twice daily, while trains connecting the two cities are available on an hourly basis.

It would be an experience in itself to see beautiful flowers, literally and figuratively, in this crowded but lively and attractive Flower City.

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Published on 11/24/03

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